The Confessions Of Brother Haluin, by Ellis Peters
This particular volumes gives a couple of twists to the usual formula of a Brother Cadfael mystery. For one, the mystery itself is a slow-developing one, rich in meaning and grace, but it is nearly halfway through the course of this novel before the mystery has been made explicit, although the clever reader will be a bit ahead of the curve. More importantly, though, this novel depends to a great deal on divine providence so obvious that its implications are staggering. At every turn in this novel, Cadfael and the lame monk he accompanies on a pilgrimage of penance end up exactly where they need to be to cause the most trouble. When people end up so often at the precisely wrong place at the wrong time, it can be no accident, even if it was not by their design, a lesson I have learned all too painfully and all too often in my own life. Such a novel as this could only have been written by a person of some kind of faith, for it would strike others as too conveniently coincidental.
In many ways, the plot of this story is a bit of an odd couple. We have the clever and curious and somewhat cynical Cadfael, and we have in brother Haluin a man in his thirties with a sensitive conscience that is easily troubled, someone who is a bit too intense, but also someone with the ingredients for a painful saintliness. A freak injury gained while repairing the Abbey’s roof leads Haluin to confess a sin from long ago, for having impregnated a young woman he loved and was denied the freedom to court, for fleeing to the Abbey in despair, and for procuring some herbs in order to induce an abortion, receiving the word that his beloved and their illegitimate daughter had died. For nearly two decades the weight of this guilt sat uneasily on his soul, until he believed himself near death. Once he recovers, he sets out to find the tomb of his beloved to pray for the well-being of her soul, only to find no such tomb where the two of them had fallen in love in their teens. So he then sets out to the chief estate of the family, and after an enigmatic meeting happens upon his daughter unawares, being asked to marry her against her will because she has fallen in love with a young man thought to be her niece. A murder then follows, and then a flight to a nunnery named Farewell, where another surprise is yet to come when Cadfael and the lame brother just happen to come across the same nunnery looking for a night’s sleep and find two important women.
This novel was greatly troubling to me on a variety of levels. For one, the novel repeats over and over again the theme of thwarted young love because of overprotective parents. There is the theme of bad generational patterns and historical cycles repeating themselves over and over, of the problems of despair over thwarted romance, over longings to be a father, over the plotting and planning of people to complicate and ruin the lives of others, and the painful but beautiful freedom that truth brings after decades of deceit and ignorance. Furthermore, there is the thread that runs through this novel of a need for communication to bridge over years of silence and misunderstanding, and the losses that come from such wasted years. In the end, the novel is beautifully written with its mood of a dark and deadly winter turning into a glorious Spring, but at the same time it is a novel that hits far too close for me to feel comfortable reading it. This is no fault of the author’s, though it makes this novel full of dark contemplation for me.